The US, China, and saving the world

Anyone who has looked seriously into China's environmental and energy-use emergencies ends up thinking, saying, or merely hoping that the US and China will work together urgently on these fronts. That would be good for China because it needs all the help it can get to avoid poisoning its own people. It would be good for America and everyone else because China's approach to carbon-emissions control will largely determine whether the world has any chance of dealing with climate problems.

Or to put things in a cheerier way, precisely because so many Chinese farms, factories, power plants, and buildings are now so inefficiently run*, there are more opportunities to make big environmental improvements here than practically anywhere else. (My contribution to this school of thought in this article.)

Everybody understands this point in the abstract. Now there's a useful new guide to what it might mean in very particular detail. For many months a scientific/technical task force run jointly by the Asia Society's Center on the US-China Relations and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has worked on specific recommendations, which were unveiled last week. Press release is here; overview here; PDF of the report in English here; in Chinese here. Introductory video, with overview rather than specifics, below.

Promising Kremlinology note: the co-chair of the project was Steven Chu, who stepped down from that role only because he had been nominated (and now confirmed) as the new US Secretary of Energy. The report is very much worth checking out -- and, in my view, worth supporting and implementing.

* Chinese farms and factories "inefficient"? Yes, very much so -- as I explain at length in my Atlantic article. Their output is often inexpensive, mainly because Chinese labor rates have been so cheap. But, as is typical for developing countries, they tend to be wasteful in their use of energy and other inputs. Chinese office buildings take much more energy to heat and cool than Western ones, because the insulation is so poor. Farmers often use more water and chemicals per bushel of yield than in advanced countries. Out-of-date Chinese factories use more fuel and create more pollution per unit of output than in Europe, Japan, or the US. This profligacy helps explains why the air is so murky in China, but it also illustrates the opportunity for big, relatively easy gains through efficiency here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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